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Grad student protests, fights for what he believes in

A regular at student protests and rallies, Cal State University graduate student Donnie Bessom knows how to get people’s attention.

Over the years, higher education has seen protests varying in sizes and strategies, but earlier this month, the CSU saw students participating in a hunger strike in order to raise awareness about corruption of education.

Bessom was one out of 12 hunger strikers representing six CSU campuses from the organization Students for Quality Education.

Bessom came to CSULB from Boston, Mass. for his master’s degree. He said once he started attending CSULB, he realized that there was an education crisis.

Over the past three years, he has participated in about 10 to 15 protests.

Not only does Bessom organize and protest, but he also studies and observes social movements such as Occupy Long Beach.

“I wouldn’t consider myself a professional protester,” he said. “I don’t think anyone can be a professional protester. I think people are just concerned citizens. Protesting or engaging in civic duty isn’t something that’s new.”

The first protest he participated in made him want to research issues that the CSU faced, and he said that the protest really got his blood pumping.

“The first big one was in 2010, on March 4,” Bessom said. “It was like right after I got here, and it was right after the budget cuts. There was about like 5,000 students up at the quad, and I was like, ‘Whoa, what’s going on here?'”

After that protest, he began organizing protests on his own.
He decided to join SQE, because they were the most progressive organization on campus, he said.

“They were on the front lines to save education, and they’ve always stood up for it,” he said. “So I have worked with them for the last three years, and this year we kind of kicked it up a notch.”

The most recent protest he participated in was the SQE hunger strike, which lasted nine days and was called off due to health concerns from the participants.

According to Bessom, the hunger strike idea originated from SQE’s Long Beach chapter after the March in March protest in Sacramento. He said SQE wanted to keep the momentum and escalate their actions.

When SQE met with CSU Chancellor Charles B. Reed earlier this month, they were denied their demands of freezing tuition, eliminating presidential car and housing allowances and a suspension of cuts to classes and student services.

However, SQE and Reed were able to discuss the freedom of speech demand.

In the meeting, SQE and Reed mainly discussed presidential salaries. Bessom asked about the salary increases, citing Cal State Fullerton’s new president Mildred Garcia, who was previously president at Cal State Dominguez Hills.

Upon Garcia’s moving campuses, the salary for CSUDH’s president jumped from $295,000 to $324,500.

Another new president, Leroy Morishita of CSU East Bay, currently earns a salary of $303,660, as compared to his predecessor who earned $276,055.

Reed, however, replied that once a president is transferred, it is a new job with different expectations.

Although Reed did not grant any of SQE’s demands, Bessom said he felt empowered to see young students standing up to Reed.

“It was fun. It was like the funnest meeting for us,” he said. “It was like a football game for us. We were amped up. We premeditated his responses, and we actually had counters for that. So we treated it more of a negotiation and a debate.”

Bessom said the hunger strike was a way to get Reed’s attention and to discuss their demands.

“The fact that we have to go on a hunger strike to prove that something is wrong speaks volumes,” he said. “So it’s good to see the young people stand up. A lot of people don’t question authority, so to see young people take charge made me feel good.”

According to Bessom, the strikers felt that by going on a hunger strike they would raise consciousness of the corruption. He said because of the hunger strike, CBS did an investigation and found a quarter of a million dollars was spent on food alone.

“The national media attention has always been on the CSU, and they’ve always criticized the leadership,” he said. “The national attention has been great because it’s shifted the conversation to what are we going to cut to looking at what the students are doing and what are they doing.”

Although Bessom was glad to have received the national attention, he was also worried that his mother might see a New York Times article on the stirke, because he did not inform her about the hunger strike so she wouldn’t further worry about him.

“My dad kind of busted my chops right away,” Bessom said. “He’s a [veteran], so he’s kind of like a hard ass. He was like, ‘I’m just going to eat a sub in front of you.'”

Bessom later told his mother after the strike was over, and she supported it.

“I haven’t heard anyone not support it,” he said. “It was good to hear the community support. That kind of lifted us up, because we were starving.”

Although he said that the protests he has participated in have brought change, he also said that it’s a slow process.

“You can’t really take a snapshot of a protest and say, ‘That did it,'” he said. “There has been a history of a longer struggle, so social movements usually take on average 10 to 15 years. With education, it’s been a decade long of radical restructuring.”

Education is also meaningful to Bessom on a personal level, because his mother and sister are teachers. He also said he wants to make change for the future students, such as his nieces and nephews.

“My dad was a veteran, so he fought for the country, same thing with my grandfather,” he said. “I guess we always had a history in my family of standing up for something you believe in, and this is something I believe in.”

Bessom plans to continue working with SQE to keep fighting for education.

“For me, education is a right not a privilege, so everyone should have access to it,” Bessom said.

One Comment

  1. I find it ironic and discouraging that this man, Donnie Bessom, was heralded as a minor hero. Yet fast forward to present day, and hero he is not. He established a company called Eco run. Allowed runners to sign up for a run in 2014, then cancelled. Held one this past June, cancelled on us 2am day of race. And no refunds in sight. Half marathon registrations are NOT cheap! You can see the anger in the runners if you search on Facebook. This man has lost sight of honesty.

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